One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others. Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets. With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible. Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away. It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game. If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.
However, it is important to recognise the limitations too. It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives. The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite. It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication. Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak. Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.
But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own. There are, however, other factors to remember. Swimming is a “whole body” sport. Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result. Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water. Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns. Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.
Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training. Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race. This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes. If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change. The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.
And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers. A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic.
There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level. These are not normal people! That is not intended in a derogatory way. It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals. In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone. Some were much taller. Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot. For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone. In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties. However, an athletic build is often just the starting point. To take Michael Phelps as an example. It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick. He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility. He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height. His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.
Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.
In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming. There is much to be learned from this approach. However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming. Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.